Abram’s response to God’s call is only the beginning of his story. God initiates a deeply personal covenant with Abram, as expressed in the text of Genesis 15.
The word of YHWH comes to Abram in a vision, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” (v1). But this news does little to assuage Abram’s anxiety: “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless…you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir,” (v2-3). As a way of assuring Abram of His faithful intentions, YHWH makes a request: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon,” (v9). Abram obeys and the animals (with the exception of the birds) are cut in half, laid out each half against the other.
Then, Abram waits.
He waits so long that the vultures start to circle, swooping down at the scent of death. But Abram shoos the birds of prey, protecting the scene for what comes next.
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” (v12)
Jewish translations of the Hebrew text use the word “terror” here. At night’s darkest hour, terror seizes Abram. Perhaps he feared what other predators were laying in wait; perhaps he feared the darkness itself. But I wonder if his fear ran deeper. What if God doesn’t keep His promise? What if He can’t? Then what? Miles from the land of his youth, Abram, in the terrifying shadow, ponders the promise of God to bless. Has He forgotten me? Will I have a true heir? As the weariness of his years accrues, so too his doubts.
But there, in the darkness of his terrors, Abram meets the Lord.
“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces,” (v17). A fire, illuminating the night. A clear separation, as in the beginning, between light and darkness. And in these flaming emblems, God passes through the torn animals, an ancient form of covenant making.
The Hebrew expression for covenant making is lichrot brit, literally “to cut a covenant.” In the Ancient Near East, covenant ceremonies involved the shedding of blood and the passing between animals much like the scene here. In essence, God is saying, “May I be like these animals, torn limb from limb, if I do not keep My promise to you, Abram.” This same word, avar in Hebrew, is used to describe yet another “passing through” centuries later. This event, known now as Passover, is yet another demonstration of God’s covenant nature.
But all of that comes later. In this moment, Abram’s trusting faith in God is ceremonially consecrated. The oft-quoted passage serves as the basis of the covenant that follows: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness,” (v6).